Unmasking Mayan Mexico: Women's Issues and Ethnic Identities Play Self-Defining Roles in the Contemporary Indigenous Theatre of Chiapas

By Underiner, Tamara L. | American Theatre, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview
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Unmasking Mayan Mexico: Women's Issues and Ethnic Identities Play Self-Defining Roles in the Contemporary Indigenous Theatre of Chiapas


Underiner, Tamara L., American Theatre


As anthropologist June Nash has pointed out, "Women, as caretakers for the young and old, are central actors in the emergent social movements of indigenous peoples in the hemisphere precisely because of their connectedness to the issues of the survival of past traditions and future generations in their own lives." In doing what they can to ensure their families' physical survival, Mayan women in Chiapas, Mexico, at once preserve certain traditions and significantly challenge others.

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These challenges go against the grain of practices that have long and deep roots. Mexican women have been allowed to vote only since 1953; according to Nash, indigenous women only rarely did so until after the Zapatista uprising, when the prospect of ending the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) monopoly began to seem possible. Violence against women, indigenous and ladino (non-Mayan), is not taken seriously in Mexico, as illustrated by the repeal in March 2002 in the neighboring state of Oaxaca of legislation criminalizing the practice of rapto (kidnapping a woman in order to marry her or satisfy the man's sexual desire), making it instead a minor infraction. According to a report in the Washington Post, a key legislator called the practice "harmless and romantic."

These attitudes are also sometimes embedded deeply in and perpetuated by oral tradition. In her study of female agency in recent Mayan theatre, Cynthia Steele recounts a traditional Tzeltal story about a woman who, venturing out alone to do her laundry in an unknown part of the river, falls into it and drowns. The perils of female autonomy were echoed in another cautionary tale I heard, this one originating among Tzotzil women. In this tale, which the anthropologist Kathleen Sullivan has traced back at least three generations, a man goes to the river and comes back with the knowledge of animal languages. When his wife asks to be let in on the secret, the man consults his animal advisers, who tell him not only to tell her nothing, but that the next time she asks, he should also beat her. In this way she will learn not to ask questions. In a region in which oral storytelling remains a more powerful form of education than the official school system's, these stories demonstrate the strong cultural pressure on Mayan women not only to stay put but also to keep quiet.

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The womanly virtues of immobility, invisibility and silence hardly lend themselves to work in the theatre; indeed, opportunities for indigenous women in Chiapas even to see theatre are practically nonexistent. Nevertheless, some Mayan women do perform, in one of the two Mayan troupes based in San Cristobal. The story of this emergence--how indigenous women of Chiapas are becoming key actors in defining an alternative world order, envisioned theatrically--is one of artistic intervention against pervasive deculturation.

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Lo'il Maxil (Monkey Business Theatre) and Fomma (Strength of the Mayan Woman) are the two most active and well known theatremaking groups in Chiapas. Both use theatre in their larger programs dedicated to Mayan language literacy and improved sociocultural awareness, Lo'il Maxil as an arm of the nonprofit organization Sna Jtz'ibajom (House of the Writer). Both have nurtured individual writers and visual artists who have become important voices in indigenous art movements. Both work with non-Mayan artists and advisers who provide creative and financial assistance. And both present their works to non-Mayan Mexicans and international audiences as well as in Mayan communities.

Whereas Fomma is an all-woman organization, Lo'il Maxil employs both women and men. Although the two troupes operate independently, their histories are very much intertwined and illustrate the ways in which ethnicity and gender intersect, interact and conflict in the enactment of cultural identity.

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